The God who worked wonders in the past is faithful to keep His promises still (Psalm 77:14; Psalm 86:15).
To say we live in troubling times is an understatement. Every day some new catastrophe floods the news cycles: natural disasters, crime, social issues, education, politics, and uncertainty about the economy threaten our personal well-being and may bring us to the edge of losing our grip on grace. It is not the first time God’s people have been on the edge of disaster, and it’s not likely the last. However, the God who brought the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt is the same God who reconciled sinners to Himself in Jesus, the author and protector of our faith. He is a God who keeps His promises.
The historical and prophecy books of the Old Testament include a narrative of all the times God showed His mercy and faithfulness to the people He chose to call His own, in spite of their continual rebellious ways. Nehemiah put it bluntly when he prayed, “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:33). The purpose of the Law was to demonstrate just how wicked the heart of humanity is and just how far we all have fallen from the perfection that was Creation. Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It doesn’t take a long look at current culture to see just how sick we are as a species. Why did the Israelites continue to rebel against the God who rescued them repeatedly? The better question might be, Why does God continue to rescue those who choose golden calves over the Creator of all things?
The simple, and at the same time complex answer is that when God formed us in His own image, He included both a creative and rational mind in us. We alone, of all creation, can also be creators. We can imagine something — a story, a picture, a dance, a sport, and any number of things — and then we can bring them into being. We are limited, of course, by the need for existing materials; we are not able to create anything ex nihilo as God can (and did). To be an imaginer or creator requires vision, and vision requires seeing. God, however, is unseen. Moses was granted a glimpse of His glory and was so radiant from the exposure that he had to cover his face (Exodus 33). We humans don’t really want that kind of God. We want one that we can manipulate or understand. Our hearts want a god we can see.
Because faith requires believing what we cannot see (Hebrews 11:1-2) it also demands we resist the temptation to make gods in our own image. Tim Keller tweeted, ” If you say: I believe in God, I trusted God, and He didn’t come through; then you only trusted God to meet your agenda” (Keller, 08/11/2022). That kind of god-on-my-own-terms is at the heart of every rebellion, beginning with Lucifer himself. While the god-of-my-own-terms may not necessarily be carved into a statue or formed into a golden calf, that made up god is an idol.
Early in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Paul commended the church for their eager embrace of the gospel as they turned away from the idols of the secular culture around them (1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). As Westerners in the world, we are surrounded by all sorts of idols: celebrities, causes, politics, and self-centeredness are the chief among them. Like the Thessalonians, we must turn from idols and serve the living and true God without diminishing His character and his nature.–even when we can’t see Him. Our minds hear the admonition that we are not to worship gods made by human desire, creativity, and intellect, but like the Hebrew people of old, we continue to turn from the God who created all things.
The question remains: Why does God continue to rescue those who choose golden calves made by humans over the Creator who made us in His image?
He loves us and calls us to Himself
The answer comes from the lips of Jesus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God love us. It’s simple and profound at the same time. In that same passage, Jesus referenced Moses as a faithful leader who pointed the Israelites to God in their times of distress (see Numbers 21:4-9), recognizing that even when people see the glory of God, they still choose darkness because their hearts are evil. The Israelites had the glory of the Lord dwelling (מִשְׁכָּן) among them (Exodus 26:6) and they still turned toward rebellion when the Lord did not meet their collective agenda. But God was always faithful to them; even the gospel is first for the Jews (Romans 1:16; 11:11). Gentiles (anyone who isn’t directly descended from Abraham) are adopted and grafted into the Body by the Father’s mercy and love. God’s love for His people is reflected in the innumerable times He rescued them, not because of their faith, but because of His faithfulness. The same is true of His love for believers today; and again, it’s His faithfulness at work, not our faith (Galatians 3:7-8). Faith allows us to see His faithfulness even when we can’t see Him.
Knowing that God is faithful, we can be confident that He will keep the promises He made when He called us to Himself: to save us, to sanctify us, and to return for us to live with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:9). Paul wrote of all three to the church at Thessalonica.
God promised to save us
The first promise of salvation came at the same time as the first rebellion: Genesis 3. Adam and Eve deliberately turned from God to their own knowledge and the result was expulsion from the Garden of Eden, pain in childbirth, hardship in working the earth for sustenance, and eventual death. With the punishment came a promise: the woman’s eventual offspring would crush the head of the deceiver and take on an injury in the process. Generations passed. The nation of Israel was created, expanding and contracting through cycles of rebellion and repentance. Finally, God went silent. For 400 years, no prophecy, no word from the Lord, and no visible manifestation of His faithfulness broke through the the barrier between heaven and earth. Finally, the Word of the Lord was made flesh in the most incredible display of the Creator’s power in a thousand years: the birth of a baby to a virgin who conceived of the Holy Spirit (John 1; Luke 1-2). God’s creative power concentrated into human form for the purpose of making a way of salvation for us.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:16-21)
God made a way for our salvation, showing us the light of His glory and grace through Jesus. The sacrifices of the law are fully completed in his obedient life, his gruesome death, and his glorious resurrection. Culture loves the darkness. Culture understands darkness and thinks that the things made in the darkness by human creativity and imagination can be manipulated into a god-of-my-own-terms. But this thinking is folly. Paul wrote, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Salvation is found in Jesus by the mercy of God through faith (Romans 11:32). Jesus is the fulfillment and end of the Law for righteousness (Romans 10:4). No longer are blood sacrifices required through priests; we are saved by faith and sanctified by the Lord Himself.
God promised to sanctify us
The role of the Levitical priest was to protect the Tabernacle from intruders outside the camp (Numbers 1:47-53; 3:7) and from uncleanness within (Leviticus 4). They were tasks with maintaining it, carrying it, and keeping it as a holy place for the glory of the Lord to dwell. They were responsible for making the offerings and acting as intercessors between God and the people (Deuteronomy 33:10). Even when all the detailed work of the sacrificial system was perfectly completed, it is clear that the Lord did the sanctifying:
“And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).
That the Lord does the sanctifying is important. There are people, including well-meaning people of faith who believe that we are sanctified and made holy by what we do “in the here and now, not in the world to come” (Sedaca, 2008). Paul made it clear in his writings, however, that no amount of good work can make humans good enough to enter the holy presence of the Lord. To the Galatians he wrote, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law…Before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardians until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24). To Titus he taught, “He saved us, not because of works done by us is righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). And to the church at Thessalonica he said, “Now may the God of peace sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Yes, we as believers must strive toward godliness in our behavior, but nothing we do of our own will can sanctify us; that is the work of the Lord alone.
God promised to return for us
The best of God’s promises for his children is that he will return for those he has redeemed in Christ. The early church hoped his second coming would be the one that rescued them from the evils of Rome, but the time was not right. Throughout the two millennia since, nearly every generation has hoped for the Day of the Lord to brush aside wickedness in the world and establish his glorious kingdom. Still the time is not right. In the throes of despair, believers have cried out the words of the ancients, “How long O Lord?” (Habakkuk 1; Psalm 82), but the Lord still waits. The faithful heroes of the faith described in Hebrews 11 were not rescued, not were the disciples, all but one of whom was murdered by opponents of Jesus. Around the world today Christians are abused and murdered for their faith, but still the Lord tarries. BUT, he has promised to return and he will do it.
The Lord answered Habakkuk saying, “Look among the nations as see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told” (Habakkuk 1:5). Habakkuk spoke the words of the Lord to a people about to be captured by a enemy army as righteous judgment for their rebellious ways. Even so, God also told Habakkuk that HE controlled the timing and that in the end HE would be glorified as the people repented from idolatry. The end as the people saw it was the beginning of their ultimate redemption and salvation. In the meantime, it would be easy to believe that God had abandoned his people. Habakkuk said,
“I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:16-19).
Habakkuk believed the Lord that “the vision still awaits its appointed time” (Habakkuk 2:3) and we, too, must believe the Lord when he says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13) and Jesus will return, “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). In the meantime, we must be encouraged that we know God has not abandoned us. He will, when the time is right,
“descend from heaven with a cry of common, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
What a glorious promise! We can encourage each other through the difficult times, personally and collectively as the Body of Christ because he saves and sanctifies us and he will return for us. He is faithful. He will do it.